Greg Zontanos is the co-founder and CEO at Locish, a Q&A app that helps users find new places to eat, drink, and have fun.


They finally did it. Technology can now officially outsmart humans into believing it’s “one of our own.” Apocalyptic premonitions aside, this watershed moment – while an impressive feat of scientific endeavor – has a fundamental flaw in its design: tech isn’t really human. And we need it to be.

As consumers, we’re more open than ever to ‘digital’ influencing our decision making – on everything from where to go, what to do, what to buy, and where to dine. But while the big players continue to focus on curating everything to everyone, smaller set ups have been quietly growing their long tails; nibbling away at their chosen niches, turning different ways for people to interact online into agile, scalable business models.

But scale doesn’t always equate to credibility. Consider Foursquare’s recent decision to ‘unbundle’ its core services into two different platforms, or Twitter consciously positioning Jelly as a brand in its own right. These cautious moves are clear evidence of a growing distrust of ‘platform hegemony’ among consumers.

That’s why it’s important for independent outfits to challenge the status quo without compromising why people liked them in the first place.

Any tech startup that achieves scale quickly should be careful not to neglect its individual brand of authenticity.

It’s too easy to write off engagement as something that can be automated – through an algorithm or real-time ad serving software. Sure, process can be automated, but authentic, meaningful engagement can only be driven by real people creating value for one another – whatever the medium, whatever the platform.

Consider one of the reasons for Airbnb’s huge success. There’s a human face behind each home: someone who owns and cares for it.

smartphone 730x280 Forget the Turing test: Users value authentic, not artificial, intelligence

If you’ve ever registered a property on the service, you’ll know the rigorous application process – which involves scanning your driver’s license and creating a 30 second piece ‘to-camera’ outlining who you are, your interests, and lifestyle tastes – just so you can rent your house out. But from a consumer perspective, failing to provide that level of detail could be a deal breaker.

Ultimately, every digital startup has to understand that the fact they’re online means they’re at an immediate disadvantage. They need to establish trust with their customer base or audience by proving they’re ‘real.’

That’s why so many brands focus their efforts on building communities and customer dialogues online to be authentic and to provide a personalized experience.

It’s not a case of smaller is better: specific is. And specific appeals to a lot of people. Specific is individual. Individual is human. It’s as simple and profound as that.

How to give your app more authenticity

Let your users decide what’s right and wrong

Try not to dictate what great content ‘looks like,’ but give users the tools to label the existing content. This might seem scary at first, since you have no control over the ‘quality’ of the content, but the outcome will be positive – it will foster trust and honesty.

This particular freedom is how communities like Reddit, StumbleUpon and HackerNews have built successful content feeds.

Make sure your interactions mean something…

…right down to the core semantics. Words matter. ‘Follow’ is better than ‘Subscribe’; ‘Reply’ is better than ‘Post’.

Why? Because people perceive them as human actions.

Allow unstructured interactions

You can’t predict what users will want to do in your app. The only way to know is to allow open-ended interactions. Simple things like free text comments or photos will help to ‘humanize’ your content.

Encourage mutual curiosity

Let your users delve deep into each others’ profiles. A post that’s ‘Liked by 14 people’ is nice, but one that’s ‘Liked by John, Sarah, and 12 more’ creates an emotional connection between users.

Make every message and notification as tailored as possible

People notice things they’re interested in – content that’s too generic simply gets ignored.  When sending an e-mail, include personalized content like ‘Jason, Mara, and 4 more viewed your profile.’

Users love it when other people spend time on them, no matter if it’s a ‘Like’ or a ‘Profile View.’ So just let it happen.